[Book Review] Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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Action movies have led many of us to believe that espionage is the combination of explosions, soft killings, six-packed agents and the thrill of the chase.

Reality is, however, a bit less exciting. Hell, a lot less exciting. Reality is, most of the time, about making sense of what seems like tons of meaningless information in order to find patterns – and while that doesn’t sound exactly like a blockbuster movie on the make, it sure can translate well into a novel when the job is well done.

That is precisely what Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John le Carré, read on paperback, Sceptre, 448 pages) is all about. The plot follows George Smiley, an MI6 (or “Circus”, as it’s referred to throughout the book) agent, in his attempt to find a mole that, during the Cold War, is on the high ranks of the British Intelligence while feeding the KGB with inside information.

I find it necessary to make something very clear to anyone interested in reading TTSS: the book is boring. Yes, boring. Not only because it moves slowly, but because it is subtle in every discovery, making the readers wonder if they have correctly understood what has just happened. Every revelation is a small victory and you have to pick the pieces throughout the book in order to make sense of what has happened in the past, so don’t expect crazy-running-around-solving-clue-after-clue Dan Brown action. You won’t have any of it.

It is, however, absurdly satisfying. The fact that it is slow means the reader has a chance to read with Smiley and watch him as he finds every tiny secret that leads to the climax. I am still quite intrigued by how it can be such a good read when it’s so – again this word, but there really is no other – boring. The final result is delicious, just as solving a puzzle or winning a game is, because the process is so realistic it makes you crave for the discovery just as much as Smiley does.

Smiley is a portrait of the modus operandi used to find the mole and tell the story: slow, simple, kept-together, unpretentious, but highly intelligent. Smiley is a boring, gray, sad character, which only makes his surname more brilliant. You will root for Smiley as you would root for a stray dog as you watch him do tricks you wouldn’t expect him to know. No one is better to spy on spies than a man who doesn’t look like one at all.

This is, in the end, a great, great book. The story, once one finishes reading it, is perceivably well plotted – it gives neither the annoying feeling that the author kept all the secrets to himself, which ruins plot twists, nor the chance to figure it all out with a fifth of the book read. Beautifully written, the reader immerses himself into Smiley. And what else could be more explosive than to feel, for once, like you are actually a spy?

Books read in 2013

2013 is coming to an end and, to keep with tradition (that started last year, but let’s all ignore that detail), here’s a list of the books I read throughout the year:

  • Looking For Alaska, John Green
  • Invisible, Paul Auster
  • Por Isso A Gente Acabou (Why We Broke Up), Daniel Handler
  • The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
  • Mandado de Segurança, Francisco Cavalcanti (Law stuff)
  • The International Brand Valuation Manual, Gabriela Salinas (Law stuff again)
  • Anna Karenina, Liev Tolstoi
  • The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, Jennifer E. Smith
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan
  • 50 Ways To Find A Lover, Lucy-Anne Holmes
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Mindy Kaling
  • Wedding Night, Sophie Kinsella (book review in 2014)
  • Cidade dos Ossos (City of Bones), Cassandra Clare (borrowed from a friend. It sucked so much I won’t even bother reviewing it – just don’t read it.)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carré (book review in 2014)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (book review in 2014)
  • Tree Of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer (book review in 2014)
  • Pray: Notes on a football season, Nick Hornby (book review in 2014)
  • À Paz Perpétua (Perpetual Peace), Immanuel Kant (read for college, so I won’t review it)
  • The Name of The Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (book review in 2014)
  • Julian, Gore Vidal (book review in 2014)
  • Quem Poderia Ser A Uma Hora Dessas? (Who Could That Be At This Hour?), Lemony Snicket (book review in 2014)

21 books: I guess it’s a pretty decent number considering I had so much going on at college this year! Next year I will be unemployed and intend to double that number. I know it’s not much for many people, but 42 books in an year will be a lot for me if I manage to do it!

I hope you all have a wonderful New Year’s Eve and that 2014 is such a beautiful year you will never want it to end.

Tons of hugs,

Mari

[Book Review] Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

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Many of us girls spent our teenage years watching romantic comedies that went from Notting Hill to Love Actually, from When Harry Met Sally to You’ve Got Mail. And to many of us – myself included –, that doesn’t mean we live in a fantastic world of cotton candy and unicorns, but that we learned from the best that we can aim as high as we want and not settle for less than Awesome Job and Prince Charming.

Yes, Prince Charming. Many would argue there’s no such thing; I’ve been saying they are living, breathing creatures for a long time now and getting surprise in response. The thing is, you can’t expect Prince Charming to be just like Aurora’s or Snow White’s, to look like Hugh Grant and behave like Colin Firth. Those Princes do exist and are perfect, in a sense that they are perfect for you. No one is perfect per se, but people can be perfect for each other, and that’s what we should all aim for. I have recently been proven that I was right to think so by running into one. Settling for a “frog”, as many claim to be only option, isn’t settling at all. It’s either not being brave enough to be be happier on your own or not recognizing that your poor so-called frog is, in fact, a prince. Your prince.

And yes, Awesome Job. If we work hard enough, why can’t we get what we want? Why can’t we dream of having power? Why can’t we aim at being a top comedian at a big city? Or a doctor, or a lawyer, or an artist, or whatever we want to be? Many of those movies – the good ones, of course – have strong, powerful female characters who fight for what they want and know what they are capable of. There is no step one for being happy, but a single level: being happy with yourself. And it doesn’t really matter what you do or how high you aim to go, does it, as long as it makes you happy? (And, well, it’s legal, of course).

And that, I believe, is the essence of Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (paperback by Three Rivers Press, 222 pages). Mindy both worked as a screenwriter and played Kelly Kapoor in The Office; she now has her own brilliant show, The Mindy Project, which is an honest, funny, light romantic comedy that manages to be more feminist than other shows that brag about it. Mindy’s book is what I can only describe as a collection of thoughts: there’s no real timeline, no precise object of analysis, but it basically gathers some of the story and many of the opinions of a great comedy writer and sweet, sweet girl.

Mindy covers the most distinct areas: from growing up as a chubby Indian descendant to starting her career as a comedian; from romantic comedy heroines and how fake they can be to her relationship with her mother. Maybe it looks autobiographical, but the biggest surprise to me was finding out that Mindy’s life wasn’t really the focus of the narrative. What happens to her is only used as an excuse to share thoughts many of us had, but didn’t know how to phrase. And everything shows us how big dreams aren’t  actually fantasies, but only plans.

If I haven’t talked you into reading it yet, I promise there’s this entire page dedicated to how perfect Colin Firth is that is entirely worth it by itself. With her light sense of humor and delicate appreciation of the finest things in life (yes, Colin Firth being one of them; I hope we can all agree at least on that), Mindy manages to steal laughter and tears faster than Kelly Kapoor would run after Robert Pattinson. By the end of it, you’ll not only want to be, but actually feel like one of her best friends. And with such a big heart,  I’m pretty sure she can fit us all in there.

[Book Review] 50 Ways To Find A Lover

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I like chick-lit as a genre. I really, really do; ever since I read The Princess Diaries back when I was 13, I have gone from Meg Cabot to Sophie Kinsella and back so many times I have a hard time keeping track of which ones I have and which ones I haven’t read. That does not mean, however, that every chick-lit is fantastic. Hell, it doesn’t even mean it’s entertaining. And sometimes, even though everything about a book makes you hope for classic, simple, sweet romance with a failed main character finding her “Prince charming”, the result is such a disaster you can’t help feel a tiny bit frustrated about love stories for a while.

That is precisely what I felt as I read 50 Ways To Find A Lover (Lucy-Anne Holmes, paperback by Pan Books, 328 pages): frustration. It all begins the moment you have to get over the title and explain again and again to anyone who sees you carrying the book around that no, this is not self-help literature. I understand they must have decided on it as a funny little joke, as if it somehow made the novel more sophisticated because of its mock title, but it is more embarrassing than it is cute.

Then comes the plot: a complete and absolute mess. I can’t remember reading a novel with such poor organization or fluency since Jane Green’s Mr. Maybe, also classifiable as chick-lit. The main character, Sarah, has been single for more than three years (imagine that! Being single! The horror!), is almost turning 30 and becomes desperate after she asks a balding bartender out, but he decides he’s better off watching the new Narnia movie at home. She then joins a reality show after her family and friends enter her name, which sounds like an interesting idea for a chick-lit novel, but is dropped right at the beginning of the book and is completely and absolutely useless. Then she decides to start a blog, trying out fifty different ways to find a lover (whoa, look at how clever that title is) and reporting her success.

From this simple summary one can already gather how absolutely chaotic this plot is. Not only is the part about the reality show useless, it is also obvious from the simple fact that the book is 328 pages long that the aforementioned fifty methods will not be fully executed. The book, released in 2009, has a character in her twenties who had never heard of a blog. Entire chapters could have been cut off without changing the story in the slightest; characters could have been written off and made it a much more pleasant experience. I really hadn’t read anything this bad in quite a while.

Two things annoyed me the most, though, and they were precisely the two key elements to a decent chick-lit novel: the main character and “Prince charming”. While no one can endure reading about a perfect main character to whom one can’t relate, it is equally irritating – or at least so it is for me – to read about someone who simply cannot make a single decent choice, who can’t take a single rational decision and who behaves so recklessly. As to the “prince”, I can only say this man was such an obvious choice and a boring character I had actually convinced myself that Sarah was going to end up with the only interesting, charismatic, polite man she meets in the whole book. By the end of it, I hated Sarah so much I was seriously happy to see her ditch him and end up with the boring boy. It’s the first time I’ve seen chick-lit in which I root against the main character, which is, of course, absurd.

I also need a couple of lines to point out something highly annoying about the idea of this book per se: why does Sarah even need a boyfriend in the first place? I imagined she would throughout the book find independence and notice she was born and would die as a perfectly functional woman who does not depend on the existence of a man, but no. Quite on the contrary: she is miserable until she finds her match. Also, what is the problem with being rejected by a balding man? Does the lack of hair on the top of his head mean he has to accept any girl who is interested in him? How can balding possibly be used as a symbol to decadence? If I were him, I would reject Sarah and spend my night watching Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian as well.

Don’t be fooled by the pretty little cover and the promise of romance: this is such a poorly developed story it hurts. If you don’t mind a poor plot, an annoying main character, a boring “prince”, bad writing and wasting hours of your life on something that basically goes nowhere, maybe, just maybe, you might actually care for it. I’m pretty sure, however, you probably won’t.

[Book Review] Will Grayson, Will Grayson

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In today’s world of information, exposure and judgement, going unnoticed might seem to be the high school equivalent to heaven. One’s clothes, one’s body, one’s very thoughts are judged by the harsh society that inhabits the very grounds in which the development of personal qualities should be done. No institution seems to repress diversity with more efficiency than schools: we go in as potential artists and come out as an employee of Chaplin’s Modern Times factory. Students are faced, at early age, with a question that is highly unfair: is giving up on being yourself better than to feel punished for being who you really are?

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan, paperback by Puffin, 336 pages long) is bold enough to address that issue. The book tells the story of two boys, both named Will Grayson, who end up meeting by chance and affecting each other’s lives more than they ever imagined possible. Each Will Grayson has his own personality: one is a shy boy trying at his best to go by unnoticed while having a friend who feeds on attention; the other is a boy filled with anger at the world and trying to start a relationship with a guy he met online, Isaac.

Each Will Grayson was written by one of the authors: Will Grayson number one, by John Green, and number two (always written will grayson, without any capital letters on his chapters), by David Levithan. The idea, which might sound confusing at first, works splendidly well. Both authors impressed me for different reasons: John, by the constant quality of his writing, though there aren’t as many beautiful lines of his in this novel as there are on his other works. David Levithan shocked me at the complexity of his Will, who curses and spits, kicks and crumbles, but never gives in to the temptation of giving up on himself. Levithan seems to have tailored the words so they would fit his character perfectly – all the insults and shocking confessions of will grayson are even more compelling than those of John’s Will Grayson, which is a remarkable fact of its own.

With one Will so obsessed with fitting in and the other so desperately trying to be different, one might guess the book would risk being good by going cliche and leaving characters to fight against each other until the climax. Quite on the contrary: much like in real life, all these teenagers are able to learn from each other’s experiences and turn them into knowledge and wisdom. The secondary characters were so well built they deserve as much attention as the two Wills: my favorite character in the book, Will Grayson #1’s friend Tiny Cooper, is an overweight gay boy who doesn’t care in the slightest about anyone else’s opinion and has a self-confidence enviable by the vainest of people. Great main characters  give you a good premise; add great secondary characters and you’ll have the final touch for a good novel.

There is, however, one thing I disliked: the ending. I won’t spoil anything in this review (how annoying is it when people tell spoilers in book reviews?), but all I can say is that David’s last chapter sounded a bit like that final speech north-american movies seem to love so much, the one in which the main character stands up in the middle of an agog crowd and changes everyone’s lives with their words. I’ve always found those speeches more awkward than inspiring, more surreal than moving. The rest of the book had moved so incredibly well and in such a creative way I was left expecting a bolder finale than the one I got.

This is still, however, a nice book. Maybe it won’t touch the hearts of those who have always fit in, but it certainly gets it right for those of us who didn’t. Living in a society that encourages only small differences as a form of keeping reality from radical change, embracing our singularities may seem like a herculean and suicidal mission, but it is just the first act of courage needed in order to give our lives some purpose. If living isn’t faced as an endless attempt at building, constructing, changing ourselves and our whereabouts, it isn’t living at all. It’s killing time.

[Book Review] The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight

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I have never believed in love at first sight. Not in the boy-looks-at-girl-and-they-see-that-their-lives-mean-nothing-unless-they-are-together sort of way. Sure, it sometimes works on some very romantic, highly idealist movies, but it always sounded to me more like passion than real love.

Maybe that has to do, though, with what you consider love at first sight to be in the first place. When I first started reading The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight (Jennifer E. Smith, paperback by Poppy, 236 pages long), I wasn’t so sure I was going to fall for the characters just as they fall in love with each other – and, when romance is involved, the reader has to fall for the characters or everything sounds fake, plastic, inorganic. I did.

The magic of Smith’s book stands on the fact that it isn’t, despite its title, all about love, and that the love it contains doesn’t happen, in fact, precisely at first sight. The main characters, Hadley and Oliver, aren’t airheads waiting for love to give their life purpose, but people with real concerns, concerns so great they – at least for me – steal the show and make the book worth it all by themselves. Their relationships with their families are very credible and well built, described in a way that isn’t melodramatic (which would make the reader impatient for the romance parts), but has actual feeling. Unlike so many novels that give characters backgrounds just for the sake of filling up space, you can actually observe how these intricate relationships have made the characters who they are and how they affect what they are on the verge of becoming.

The best part of it all is still the romance. Oliver will make any girl swoon in ways he himself probably never imagined, by pure accident, simply because of his charming personality. And what makes this a great love story is the fact that it is, indeed, love, and not pure passion or lust: these characters get to know each other, their flaws included, and only then fall in love. It reminded me of a line from John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars: “as he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”. They slowly get to know each other – even if they do it in a short period of time, nothing is rushed – and fall in love yes, at first sight, but after a very, very good look.

Without any spoilers, I can also say the end is perfect. The only sad thing is that Smith writes so, so well that the reader has no choice but to become attached to these characters, which leaves one longing for more when it’s all over. I find it amusing that prose this simple can be so effective and delicate. As short and basic as it is, it manages to be a beautiful story about love in every meaning, every manner and with every sort of beginning. Love requires friendship, and great friendships do not require much time to happen.

[Book Review] Anna Karenina

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What do we all live for? Do we live simply because we exist? Because we were sent into this planet by a God with a “bigger plan”? Does this question even matter?

In Anna Karenina (Liev Tolstoy, Vintage, 976 pages), that question is the essence of the entire story. The book follows mostly the story of two couples: Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky and Kitty Shcherbatsky and Constantine Levin. Without telling spoilers, I can say in advance that these couples are radically different in absolutely everything, especially on the development of their stories.

As I began reading this, I assumed it would be mostly about Anna and Vronsky and, I must admit, was a bit disappointed to find out that Levin dominated most of the book. Though he is quite an interesting character – it’s fascinating how much he changes throughout the book and how innocently he believes to be different from Moscow society when he actually isn’t –, I did grow impatient waiting for the focus to shift back to Anna. Levin, much like Tolstoy, questions everything, even himself; he judges everyone while not realizing how much wrong there also is in his behavior.

Anna, however, is one of those intoxicating characters that will make you take her side  and fight for it. She knows herself so well that she is ready to fight battles most of us wouldn’t be able to fight, to give up on what can’t be forgotten, to love when everything tries to keep her from loving. I loved everything about her, from beginning-of-the-book Anna to end-of-the-boo Anna, because she is more coherent than many people I know.

And Vronsky, oh, boy, Vronsky. Though he doesn’t even appear that much on the book, he is a constant presence on Anna’s behavior, shaping her every mood even if only on her mind. What makes Vronsky so remarkable is how human he is – unlike most “princes”, he has flaws and doubts, but also virtues and certainties. And don’t we all? That’s probably what made Anna and Vronsky into one of my favorite literary couples: the fact that their love, every time it was tested, came out stronger and deeper. Vronsky’s reactions to the facts around the story were, at least for me, better than anything Levin did on the entire story.

I must warn you about something, though. This is not an easy read. It’s nearly 1,000 pages long and there are about a gazillion characters, all with three Russian names and sometimes even a nickname. It’s also one of the best pieces of realism, so expect long (actually huge) chapters about Levin learning to mow, Levin learning to hunt, Levin learning about elections and – something highly frustrating if you’re an atheist like me – pages and pages about Levin finding God.

I promise, though, that it is worth every page. I began reading this because I wanted to know the story before watching the movie, considering it was such a long book and I might lose some interest after knowing the main events and, well, how it ended. It ended up surprising me completely: you learn to understand every side of everyone, whether you liked them at first or not. Just like us, these characters seem to be seeking the only possible answer to keep us living, the quest we fight for with more or less success, trying to touch it with clumsy hands: to be, even if for a moment, happy.

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[Book Review] The Fault In Our Stars

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I have finished reading this book more than a month ago and only now have I gathered the courage I needed to write this review. Without spoilers, here’s why.

The Fault In Our Stars (John Green, 2012, Penguin, 336 pages) tells the story of a couple of teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, and their friendship, which begins after they meet at a support group for children with cancer. From there on, to use an expression that appears in the book, everything is “a roller coaster that only goes up”.

This is not your typical sad book. Yes, it’s sad – don’t go anywhere near it if you don’t want to cry. But what sets it apart from others is that this isn’t a story about disease, it’s a story about love. It’s very easy to gather a legion of fans by writing about a couple which is cute and does cute things together and has their lives dramatically changed and cries endlessly and will always love each other (I feel sick simply by writing this generic description). But what did they feel? What did they think? What did they question, what did they learn, where did they start and who did they become?

John Green answers those questions and manages to treat death as it is: natural. Painful, yes, but natural. Both Hazel and Augustus know – and it is clear to us, from what is written, that adults do not understand them – how much it hurts to see decades of future, a future that had been promised to you from the day you were born, maybe being taken from you. Stolen, even, by this disease without an easy cure. The pain is so great that depression goes unnoticed.

And that is where Green excels every expectation and delivers a work of art. His reading of human nature and his ability to empathize are only comparable, from what I’ve read, to Nick Hornby’s. There are no writing skills – though his are remarkable – capable of surpassing lack of content, which implicates that a great part of the perfection that is this book is attributable to the author’s delicate perception of his object of study, people.

These people who are, in fact, the best part of the book. From Hazel’s religious obsession for a fictional book to Augustus and his videogame character suicides, every tiny thing is there on purpose; every detail adds up to creating complete, thorough personalities. Emotions aren’t there for the creation of climaxes or making readers cry: they are there because this is what real people, flesh-and-boned creatures, feel. And what are characters but depictions of us?

And the writing, oh, the writing. The pace is perfect, the phrasing is perfect, the choice of words is perfect. John’s latest is quite possibly his best, simply because it takes his skills to a whole new level. There are so many metaphors and symbols all over this – the book author, the videogames, the cigarettes, the endless saga of fictional war stories, the use of the words “Augustus” and “Gus” – I would dare say this will become a classic. Much like Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Green manages to make a book that is not only delicious at first, but discoverable at each read, a book other books should be written about and accessible to all audiences, who will the touched by the metaphors even if they aren’t clear at first. I have always felt that the smallest details could sometimes do a better job at telling a story than a hundred pages might. I’m not the biggest crier when it comes to books, but this remarkable author, with his words well chosen and feelings well exposed, made me randomly sob because of beautiful sentences lost between chapters, as diamonds to be found in a sea of pearls.

To use a line from the book, “my thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations”; I would be able to go on about this forever and would still never do it justice.  The main reason, now that I think of it, is probably that, like love, everything that changes our hearts is partially unexplainable and surpasses all boundaries to become a personal experience. This book, as all good books, feels like more than reading. It is pure living.

[Book Review] The Hobbit

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When I was around 11 years old, I got a The Lord of The Rings copy from my parents. It was (is, I guess – I still have it and love it) huge, especially on my then tiny (ok, still tiny) hands. 1200 pages long, it included all three books, translated to Portuguese, and a huge picture of Gandalf on the cover, then intact, now rugged with age and flicking.

So is it too strange that I see LOTR as a childhood friend? After being seduced by Harry Potter, I went on to find out that these books, these much more complicated, dense, descriptive stories, caused a whole new level of reading satisfaction on me, and that Frodo Baggins and his companions were multifaceted, complex characters who would teach me more about life than many real adult figures ever managed to.

The reason I love LOTR so much is also the reason why I, ten years later, didn’t expect much of The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien, read on Harper Collins’ paperback, 400 pages). I thought it would be more of the same and, being older, perhaps I wouldn’t be as interested, considering most of my favorite characters weren’t in it – and the fact that I had just read The Great Gatsby, which then became my favorite book. My mistake. I think I might have actually enjoyed this more than LOTR.

The Hobbit follows Bilbo Baggins on his adventure out of the Shire and throughout Middle Earth, joining Gandalf and a group of dwarves as they try to reclaim a treasure of their people from the claws of terrible dragon Smaug. And it is fun. While LOTR is such a serious journey that you feel yourself growing weary with the characters, Bilbo’s story is light, easy, funny at times, a simple, pure adventure – in fact, if I had to pick a word to describe this, I would really pick light. I flicked through pages and found myself having to save some of the book, in one of those moments in which something you read is so, so good that you need to put every word on your mouth, mentally say it twice, close your eyes and smile with joy. Probably the best storytelling skills I have ever found.

Another great part of this book are its characters. Bilbo lives every reader’s dream of running around, breaking barriers and living an adventure no matter what cost. Isn’t that what reading is all about? I do believe we read partially because it feels so good to live what the characters live, to dream higher and higher and still believe in it, to run around and slay dragons and kiss princesses and win the world. People who don’t enjoy reading must never have discovered that reading is actually feeling, and I feel sad for anyone who hasn’t experienced falling in love with characters. Bilbo and the dwarves are the perfect mix of crazy and smart; they are small, but they conquer it all. Gandalf is wise, but lets everyone make their mistakes and learn from them. Smaug is a dragon with more personality than a lot of people I know. All secondary characters are so perfectly created – and described – you keep wishing for spin-offs for every single one of them.

Every song Tolkien wrote, every new species he created, every short, fast-paced adventure that keeps you holding your breath is nothing but the expression of a master on the arts of heart touching and story telling. Whatever you do, whoever you are, I promise you’d finish this book with a smile on your face and the feeling of a whole journey lived. Bilbo is the ultimate improbable hero, who, by leaving his tiny little house on his tiny little feet, showed the entire world that, with wit and heart, anything is possible.

(This review is dedicated to my friend Raphael, who I hope will always keep one foot on the Shire and one running after Smaug)